A front-page introduction for a 47-million-year-old primate fossil
The primate fossil featured in "The Link" on the History Channel on Monday, May 25, at 9pm ET (HISTORY™/Atlantic Productions)
There's no doubt that the fossil primate named Ida, after paleontologist Jørn Hurum's young daughter, is big news, and page one coverage in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal attests it's more than just a bit of evolutionary road kill. Ida is the subject of a two-hour History Channel documentary, "The Link," which will debut on May 25. A juvenile female, the 95 percent complete skeleton comes from Germany's Messel Pit, a mile-wide crater, and dates to 47 million years ago. Effectively acting as host of the show is Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo's Natural History Museum.
The hand of the fossil (HISTORY™/Atlantic Productions)
The documentary will engage those who are interested in human evolution, but it has to be said that there's a fair amount of padding. The focus seems solely on the question, is this a human ancestor or not? At an early stage I would guess that it was judged that only this question would hold the attention of viewers. I think that was a mistake. But you can find much that was omitted from the program in the companion website and book. How was the fossil found and acquired, what the environment was like, and basics like close-up images in which you take time in looking at closely (those in the documentary are shown for mere seconds). So the documentary comes at you in a rapid fire mode (but oddly with lots of repeated material), but if you want to engage with and think about Ida and the implications of this fossil, you have to go to the other sources.
The answer to the basic question--lower primate or monkey/ape lineage--can be summarized in a few key skeletal characteristics. An anklebone and specifics about the claws/toenails, and front teeth all suggest that Ida was on the branch leading to monkeys and apes (including us) rather than on the lemur and lower primate line. The elucidation of these clues is drawn out (I lost count of "major turning points" announced just before commercial breaks). But along the way we also learn that Ida was arboreal; ate fruits, seeds, and leaves; and had deciduous and permanent teeth, suggesting she was maybe six months old. The researchers identify trauma at Ida's right wrist, but it isn't followed up adequately: do modern lemurs and monkeys have similar fractures? Was it likely caused by a fall from a tree?
Scientists Jens Franzen and Jørn Hurum (HISTORY™/Atlantic Productions)
A selection of modern and fossil primates are considered in an attempt to put Ida in context, but the comparisons seem strained: chimpanzees and baboons among living primates rather than lemurs that are much more like Ida, and "Lucy" (3.2 million years old) and the Turkana boy (1.53 million years old) rather than early primates, including others from the Messsel Pit. So we are left wondering exactly how Ida fits in. There is some discussion of her as a "transitional species" but that seems overstated because the evidence clearly puts her on the monkey/ape branch of the larger primate family tree.
But she's not too far along. For the average viewer, Ida will look as much like an opossum as a monkey. This makes the part about how Ida died and (fortunately for us) entered the fossil record a bit tenuous. She's referred to as "a young girl" and her death is a "tragedy." Only one putative cause of death is given--she may have been overcome by poisonous volcanic gas and fell into the watery crater of the Messel Pit. Okay, but an internal parasite or bacterial or viral infection could be the cause just as well. Lots of causes of death leave no traces on bones.
But the main problem has to do with the duration of the documentary and its limited scope. There's overkill at the beginning of the show: "secretly studies" "could shed new light" "just like an asteroid hitting the earth" "holy grail" and so forth. Ultimately the fossil really is cool in and of itself--a major discovery that we can all appreciate without the hyperbole. A shorter format, with the same focus on Ida as human ancestor or not, or a broader treatment would have been better. Still, many will enjoy what is on offer in the two hours presented here.
The Messel Pit (HISTORY™/Atlantic Productions)
While we don't really get an in-depth view of Ida and her world from the documentary, the tie-in website (www.revealingthelink.com) provides more material, such as a series of views showingother animals found in the same place as Ida, shown either as fossils or artists' conceptions. In fact, a re-creation of Ida appears on the website but not in the version of the show we screened (but not the final version). There's no animated version of Ida in her world, which could have been fun. But it's nice even to have the still images to look at online, without them zipping by as on TV. There are also some clips, perhaps from the cutting-room floor, but not bad, such as Sir David Attenborough on Ida as link between primates and more generalized mammals.
It is to their credit, that the team (whether that be the scientists, History Channel, or both) has made much of their information accessible to the public. In addition to the book (see below), one can view the underlying academic research on the Public Library of Science website (PLoS is a peer-reviewed online scientific journal) and for a more popular account see the www.revealingthelink.com website. Television-driven archaeology programs have been criticized, rightly, both as entertainment based on too little scholarship and as projects that aren't followed through on the academic side once an overly-hyped show has been broadcast. I haven't perused the PLoS paper in detail or the fully explored the companion website, so I can't say if they got it right--but the concept, backing up the documentary with robust scientific and popular content that is freely accessible, is very good.
The popular book on Ida, The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor by science writer Colin Tudge, seems to have been written hastily for release at the same time as Hurum et al.'s scientific paper, but it fills in some of the documentary's gaps. Though it occasionally lapses into the hyperbole that drives its television counterpart--It too relies on soundbites like Hurum's "Lost Ark" quote and Franzen's likening the publication of the research to "an asteroid hitting the earth"--the book should satisfy anyone interested in Ida but frustrated with the documentary's treatment of the discovery.
For one, the book gives an interesting account of the slightly shady process Hurum had to go through to acquire the fossil from a German collector who used a go between. It turns out only fossils excavated from the Messel Pit before 1995 can be bought and sold, so to legally acquire Ida Hurum commissioned dating of the resin used to consolidate the find. That process put Ida's excavation in the early 1980s, and allowed Hurum to take the fossil out of the country. This brief glimpse into the world of fossil trading will interest anyone who follows the high drama of the antiquities market.
More importantly, while the book's task is to promote Ida's discovery as the scientific find of the century, it actually does a good job of showing just how rich the fossil primate record is, all things considered. The documentary leaves the impression that Ida is almost in a vacuum, her only peers being the much later hominids Lucy and Turkana Boy. But Tudge brings other primates into the story. He describes fossils of the first prosimians in the Eocene, the rodent-sized Teilhardina and Cantius, and gives room to Aegyptopithecus the "dawn ape" that lived some 35 million years ago and preceded the split between apes and Old World monkeys, and who might actually have a stronger claim to the "missing link" mantle. Ida does not sit in the fossil record in splendid isolation, she has peers even in the Messel Pit. Tudge tells us that there are eight other primates preserved at Messel, two of which come from the lemur-like genus Europolemur, though none are nearly as well preserved as Ida.
Without diminishing the magnitude of Ida's discovery, Tudge gives the fossil more context than the documentary does, making her story even more interesting.
Mark Rose is AIA online editorial director. Eric A. Powell is ARCHAEOLOGY's deputy editor.